The 10 Biggest Disappointments of the 2017-18 NBA Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 21, 2018

The 10 Biggest Disappointments of the 2017-18 NBA Season

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    We've seen offenses ramp up across the NBA, new powers rise and a blockbuster February trade deadline. The title race feels more open than it did just a few weeks ago, LeBron James is dunking on centers at age 33 and the on-court product is peaking in entertainment value.

    So what's there to be disappointed about?

    Glad you asked.

    As we run through the biggest bummers of the 2017-18 NBA season, keep something in mind: In most cases, this is about our own expectations. It's a question of what we thought we were going to get, or thought we should get...and then didn't.

Gordon Hayward's Injury

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Shattered limbs are always bummers (colossal understatement), but the particulars of Gordon Hayward's gruesome injury coalesced to cast a pall over the entire NBA.

    Opening night.

    Just a few minutes into his debut with a new team.

    Fresh off an agonizing decision to leave the Utah Jazz.

    It was all too much, and the joy that should have been coloring the dawn of a new season got snuffed out in a hurry.

    The Celtics, banged up across the board, are still locked into the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed and have, by all but the most optimistic standards, exceeded expectations. In a way, that makes Hayward's injury even more disappointing. Because how good might this team have been with its star forward healthy?

    At least the New England Patriots lost the Super Bowl a few months afterward, allowing Boston fans to transfer their despair.

The Markelle Fultz Debacle

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The Markelle Fultz Debacle is annoying.

    Did he forget how to shoot? Was it an injury? Is this a mental thing? Physical? Are the Philadelphia 76ers just finding new ways to give their lottery picks a redshirt season?

    The Markelle Fultz Debacle is frustrating.

    Why is this taking so long?!

    The Markelle Fultz Debacle is ominous.

    Cross talk between player, coach and organization is worrisome. Nobody seems to agree on what's happening, and if that hints at mismanagement, the stakes are dramatic. Philly is poised to be one of the true league powers. Organizational discord could ruin it all.

    But mostly, the Markelle Fultz Debacle is disappointing.

    How great could the Sixers be with Fultz attacking the rim, drilling threes and feasting on defenses more focused on stopping Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid?

    This guy was the top overall pick for a reason. He was supposed to be a can't-miss star. We've all been robbed.

The Failure to Choose Sides

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    Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

    If the goal of several format tweaks was to make the All-Star Game more competitive, the NBA stopped short of a full solution.

    Because while bonuses to the winners and two captains choosing sides added intrigue, nothing would have juiced the affair like slighted superstars motivated to prove the other captain wronged them or their own picked them too late.

    We needed to see the selections happen in real time, preferably right before the game.

    Sure, the selection order partially leaked anyway. And the actual presence of defense down the stretch of the contest itself suggested the changes affected play in a positive way. But imagine how much more intense things could have been if the players had sat through an agonizing (and maybe even a little embarrassing) selection process.

    If James Harden had been picked behind Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo in front of the world, don't you think he would have been a little more driven to stick it to the other team and outshine those guys in particular?

    What about the dude picked last? Would that person have ever been picked last for anything in his life? How would he react?

    The best NBA players thrive on disrespect. Many who've long since silenced doubters are experts in conjuring new ones to replace those defeated.

    Just televise the selection process. Let us watch two dozen superstars stand and look at each other as captains choose sides. It'd be riveting.

Kawhi Leonard's Strange, Lost Season

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Ugh.

    This one burns on several levels.

    For starters, Kawhi Leonard's mostly lost season (thanks a bunch, quadriceps tendinopathy!) means we never got to see the full-strength San Antonio Spurs test themselves against the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors. Nobody is a better match for the Durants and Hardens of the world than Leonard.

    What might have happened to Houston's iso-heavy attack with Leonard coiled and ready to defend Harden one-on-one?

    Secondly, it feels like this fiasco has cost the Spurs some of their hyperfunctional mystique. There were rumors of a rift, and throughout Leonard's protracted recovery, we've digested reports of him not feeling ready despite being cleared by the team. Something seems...off. Disjointed. That's so un-Spurs, and it makes me uncomfortable.

    It's like we're seeing cracks in San Antonio's monolithic facade.

    Finally, and maybe this is the largest looming concern: Will Leonard ever be the same?

    This is an injury that contains multitudes. Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes told CBSSports.com that the actual nature of Leonard's tendinopathy could range from a strain to a chronic, degenerative disease. Maybe that sounds sensational, but with the recovery process dragging and answers in short supply, it's easy to start thinking worst-case scenario.

    It'd sure be disappointing if this was a lingering situation that sapped the 26-year-old's athleticism and reduced him to the form we saw during short attempts to return earlier this year.

Andrew Wiggins

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    Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

    This isn't an exercise in finger-pointing. We're not out to rip players who haven't met expectations.

    But Andrew Wiggins is an exception, because to whom much is given, much is expected.

    Wiggins is athletically unlimited. Unbound. He is untethered by the rules that constrain even the top-level athletes populating the NBA. But those gravity-warping, space/time-defying gifts continue to go underutilized.

    Wiggins is shooting worse from the field, from three and from the line than he did a year ago, and he's getting a lower percentage of his looks from inside three feet than ever. Defensively, he remains inconsistently engaged. He ranks 80th out of 90 small forwards in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus metric.

    Despite the skills and physical tools to make an impact, Wiggins just...doesn't.

    Some of the shooting issues are attributable to changing circumstances. Jimmy Butler is a ball-dominant leader, and Karl-Anthony Towns is perhaps the league's most polished offensive big man. Both deserve more touches than Wiggins, which relegates him to a limited role.

    Wiggins isn't playing anything like a guy who'll be earning max money starting next year.    

The Memphis Grizzlies

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    You hate to see it get this ugly this fast.

    The Memphis Grizzlies may not have been much more than a fringe playoff team if everything had gone right, but it's still tough to see one of the league's paragons of steady competitiveness crumble like this. The Grizz, thin to begin with, have come apart with a litany of injuries, player-coach infighting and ownership uncertainty.

    The results are tearing Marc Gasol apart, though it should be noted he has also seen a dip in performance. It's hard to say whether that's due more to the rotten situation or a loss of skill, but we may as well add Gasol's decline to the list of disappointments here.

    "Of course, he's upset," Pau Gasol said of his brother in early March. "He should be upset. Any player who competes and cares would be upset. That's a good sign from a player who cares and is a leader. He's putting his body on the line and not quitting."

    Mike Conley may never be the same after another season cut short because of Achilles and heel trouble, and Chandler Parsons represents dead money.

    Memphis had no choice but to embrace the tank. If we're going to adopt Pau's optimistic view of his brother's struggles, at least there's a good chance we see a top lottery pick alongside Conley and Gasol next year.

    That's the pinprick of light shining through an otherwise overcast Memphis sky.

Tanking Hypocrisy

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    Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press

    The NBA is more concerned with avoiding honest talk about tanking than it is about the practice itself.

    For an organization that gets so much right in its approach to advancing social issues, embracing analytics and generally operating as the most forward-thinking league in American sports, the NBA has adopted a particularly strange tactic here.

    Commissioner Adam Silver has, broadly, been fantastic since taking over from David Stern in 2014. And he's right to prioritize competitiveness because he understands the real root of fans' attachment to his league: They enjoy watching games. So the games have to mean something. They have to be played with integrity.

    But what we've got, as several teams do everything within reason to lose on purpose, is the illusion of integrity. It's obvious, and more than that, it's the result of an effort from smart franchises to do what they can to exploit an incentive structure.

    Building through the lottery is the best percentage play (and it still will be next year, when the league flattens the odds a bit). Until that's not true, teams will tank.

    So let's not fine owners for speaking truth about what's happening. And let's not formally warn teams about resting veterans.

    Instead, let's change the incentives so losing, for any reason, at any time, doesn't produce positive results.

    That's the fix, and it's frustrating that the league is focused more on perception than solving the problem.

The Coasting Epidemic

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    While we're on the leaguewide-gripe tip, let's also point out tanking's cousin: the full-season coast.

    In some ways, watching the best teams put forth less than full effort is even worse than the same practice from the bad ones. We're losing more as viewers when the league's elite, who have it in them to wow us, strategically decide not to.

    LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers have coasted for years to save energy for the postseason, and the Golden State Warriors half-stepped their way through three quarters of the season before losing their best players to injury anyway.

    This is another situation where, within the structures the league's set up, it behooves teams such as the Cavs and Warriors to take it easy. The regular season's grind is ridiculously long, and individual games don't matter much. If they did, you wouldn't see teams strategically resting players, and you wouldn't have to watch James pull the bullfighter's ole on so many defensive possessions.

    Shorten the year, make each game count for more, and you can go a long way toward addressing the issue.

    The NFL isn't a great example for much these days, but at least the scarcity of regular-season games makes each one matter.

All These Doggone Injuries

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Hayward's injury got its own slide because of the circumstances: Opening night was catastrophic and grisly, theoretically knocking a contender down a peg. But we've had a rash of health issues change this season's complexion.

    We already touched on Leonard, Conley and Fultz, but severe, season-ending injuries have also tagged Kristaps Porzingis (ACL surgery) and DeMarcus Cousins (torn Achilles).

    Paul Millsap missed months with a wrist setback, Kevin Love broke his hand and Isaiah Thomas didn't play until January after recovering from a hip ailment.

    Andre Roberson's knee injury destroyed the Oklahoma City Thunder's defense, John Wall's has kept him out for nearly two months and Danilo Gallinari has played 19 games this year thanks to various setbacks.

    The Warriors are a skeleton crew, Chris Paul missed significant time and...you get it.

    Injuries are always an unwelcome influence on an NBA season, but it feels like they've cost us more than usual in 2017-18.

You, Me and Us

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Nobody's paying enough attention to Rudy Gobert, and that one's on all of us.

    The Utah Jazz's incredible run, during which they've been the league's best team (as measured by net rating, at least) since Jan. 23, is getting some shine. Donovan Mitchell is drawing deserved Rookie of the Year consideration. People are starting to appreciate Joe Ingles' slow-motion genius.

    But while it's reasonable to praise the Jazz as a whole, the love could stand tailoring.

    Gobert is the engine in all this. He returned, not coincidentally, on Jan. 19. After taking a couple of games to ramp up, he's been the reason Utah has held opponents to an unfathomable 94.5 defensive rating during a 21-3 surge.

    Give him Defensive Player of the Year.

    Give him All-NBA acknowledgment.

    Give him some damn attention.

    It should disappoint all of us that Gobert isn't being appreciated as one of the handful of the league's most valuable players.

                 

    Stats courtesy of Basketball ReferenceCleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified.

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